Rational Youth Released The Ultimate Minimal Synth Album With “Cold War Nightlife” [part 1]

rational youth cold war night life
Musicvaultz | CAN | CD | 2019 | 5388280

Rational Youth: Cold War Nightlife – CAN – DLX RM CD [2019]

  1. Close To Nature
  2. Beware The Fly
  3. Saturdays In Silesia
  4. Just A Sound In The Night
  5. Le Meilleur Des Mondes
  6. Ring The Bells
  7. City Of Night
  8. Dancing On The Berlin Wall
  9. Power Zone
  10. Coboloid Race
  11. Cité Phosphore
  12. Saturdays In Silesia [ext. ver.]
  13. City of Night [danse mix]
  14. I Want To See The Light

It was about three months ago when I posted about the Canadian Heaven 17, that flowered and withered before the well-known British band later used that same name to much greater fame. It turned out that the Canadian Heaven 17 were also tied intimately to the Canadian synthpop pioneers Rational Youth… who completely passed by musical cave-dwellers like myself in the backwaters of Central Florida 39 years ago! In that locale, if it was not fairly well known in Britain, there was no way it was going to have any impact in that market. So I’d gone through my life never having heard Rational Youth, or their influential debut album that had success both at home and in Europe.

Commenters on that post from The Great White North and even beyond were aghast. This hayseed music fan had once again revealed one of my numerous blind spots, and amazingly, commenter KeithC saw to it that I would have a copy of this impactful recording and what else can I do but listen and share my findings with the larger world now that I can no longer say “I’ve never heard ‘Cold War Nightlife’…what’s it like?”

It started off with an insect clicking, the product of a particularly percussive synth patch, soon enjoined by a TR-808 adding its distinct club rhythms. Then the synths swelled into the mix, with squelchy lines in slow motion aiming for a modernist use of this technology. None of the synths here were trying to replicate old fashioned instruments. There were no guitars at all. This was synthpop of the era. Common in England for at least a year or two prior, but in Montreal, Quebec, this was a rare bird indeed.

Vocalist/synthesist Tracey Howe invested “Close To Nature” with a clear-eyed, declamatory delivery on the early verses. The instrumental middle eight had a delicate weave of the armful of synths the band had at their disposal. With patch cord monsters like the Roland System 100 rubbing shoulders with the newest arrivals like the Roland MC-4 Microcomposer.

A flash of light, the sky erupting

My eyes are burned

I cannot bear to see the awful power

Close to nature

Close To Nature

The nuclear anxiety that was the seed of the “Cold War Nightlife” themes manifested on the verses following the middle eight, as Howe emphasized the anguish of the lyric and the 808 patterns became more enervated in their motorik fury as the sequencers kicked in to add their intensity to the mix.

rational youth saturdays in silesia cover artMore than one commenter had mentioned “Saturdays In Silesia” as being a real highlight here. Once it began, I was shocked to hear that the melody in the song mirrored that of the Pet Shop Boys classic “Rent,” which varied so slightly from “Silesia” that I can only concur that Chris Lowe must have been a Rational Youth fan! Even the beatbox was not far from the template here! The lyrics of youth escaping into a world of music and excitement on the weekend cut across all lines of youth culture, and the heraldic synths cast a noble light on such a prosaic pursuit.

But the devil was in the details. “Silesia” was a historic region of Central Europe constituting parts of Poland, Germany, and [then] Czechoslovakia. The middle eight laid it on the line.

And if the soldiers put the padlock on the door

We’ll break it open like we’ve always done before

We don’t have much but what we’ve got we’re going to keep

Won’t you stay close to me?

Saturdays In Silesia

All of this makes this song a perfect example of the next generation of synthpop taking their cues from Bowie’s “Heroes” and recasting the setting in the new generation of synths and drum machines. Once more fitting into the thematic undercurrents of the album. The cover art looked real familiar…a riff on the Polish Solidarity logo we used to see a lot in the news back then.

Polish Solidarity logo
Polish Solidarność logo

There was a lot of gear on this album common to both Human League MK I and II, but little here was redolent of those records explicitly, with the exception of “Just A Sound In The Night.” It was a song that may have been directly inspired by “Open Your Heart,” which was released six months before the “Cold War Nightlife” album. The plaintive melody and tempo practically invited me to sing the lyric along to the music bed here. But yet in another vector pointing to “Rent,” the drum programming here was also a possible blueprint for the Pet Shop Boys to investigate five years later. Now with two songs in a row seemingly pilfered to construct “Rent,” I’m starting to go down a Rational Youth/Pet Shop Boys rabbit hole! Better to focus on the beauty of the song’s instrumental middle eight.

Next: …Dancing In Berlin II…Electric Boogaloo

About postpunkmonk

graphic design | software UI design | remastering vinyl • record collector • satire • non-fiction
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7 Responses to Rational Youth Released The Ultimate Minimal Synth Album With “Cold War Nightlife” [part 1]

  1. Pingback: Record Review: Trans-X – “Living On Video” GER 12″ | Post-Punk Monk

  2. Will be very interested to hear this stuff. thanks for the heads up P-P M


    • postpunkmonk says:

      the press music reviews – Don’t thank me. Thank the commenters who have consistently brought up the topic of Rational Youth, and then took pains to send me a copy! [Shoutout to KeithC for going above and beyond the call of duty…]

      Liked by 1 person

  3. KeithC says:

    I’m very happy to see one of my fav Canuck 80s bands get PPM’d. Once again the worth of this blog to me — and I assume many others — is the extra detail(s) that I pick up even after having listened to a release innumerous times. One tends to hear strains of other bands in the same genre/time frame but I can honestly say that the PSB linkage completely passed me by. Given I played my Actually cassette to death when it was first released, I’m ‘actually’ shocked that I was so surprised reading that comment. I’ve deferred reading the next Parts of this series of posts while I re-read this post tomorrow with alternating CWNL / Actually accompaniment (one + of working at home).

    As for the addition to your Record Cell, my pleasure. A very timely coincidence with the H17 post you noted above and an A-Z rack scouring of what replaced my former HMV-hangout store.


    • postpunkmonk says:

      KeithC – The bits that PSB seemingly nicked from this album fairly leapt out at me. We know for a fact that The Boys were into the roots of Minimal Synth bunking with crass Disco with their devotion to the [hundreds] of anonymous Bobby Orlando productions that few other pop stars were paying any attention to. Why not some French Canadian synthpop of the same period?


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